Written by Frank Lockwood
Published by Arkansas Democrat Gazette
WASHINGTON — The effort wasn’t easy, but members of the House delegation from Arkansas all made it back to Capitol Hill on Friday in time to vote for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Ultimately, no roll call was taken; the $2 trillion package passed on a voice vote.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Hot Springs, wasn’t able to fly out of Little Rock on Thursday given the widespread travel disruptions. So he got up at 2 a.m. Friday, climbed in his car, and headed for Memphis International Airport, nearly 200 miles to the east.
Once there, Westerman made it from the parking lot to the airplane without touching a single surface (other than the ground), he said.
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The 6:05 a.m. American Airlines flight wasn’t cramped.
“It was very sparse,” Westerman said in an interview. “There were, I think, seven people on the plane, and four of them were members of Congress.”
The passenger manifest included U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford; the Republican from Jonesboro had made an 80-mile pre-dawn dash of his own after waking at 3 a.m.
With social distancing in place, people kept apart. Drink and snack service was suspended.
The plane pulled up to the gate at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport at 9 a.m. EDT, just as the House’s opening gavel came down.
After deplaning in Arlington, Va., they made haste for Capitol Hill.
While the Arkansans raced toward town, their other Republican colleagues, U.S. Reps. French Hill of Little Rock and Steve Womack of Rogers, were readying speeches to deliver on the House floor.
Going first, Hill praised the bill, saying it would “provide much-needed relief and help to Arkansas’ families, hospitals and businesses in this unprecedented time.”
Congress, Womack insisted, had an obligation to act.
“Who among us can question the crisis we are in and the needs of the people we serve?” Womack asked, urging his colleagues to “put aside our politics and deliver for the American people.”
In his office across the street from the Capitol, Westerman monitored the debate on a television screen.
“We’ve obviously got a crisis with this pandemic. We saw unemployment numbers [climb] over 3 million last week, and I see this as almost a wartime situation,” Westerman said. “This isn’t your traditional foreign army invading us, but it is something that’s attacking the whole country, and it’s doing great harm to people’s health and to the economy.”
House officials, charged with protecting lawmakers’ health, had stressed the importance of social distancing. So had Westerman’s spouse, he noted.
“My wife told me if I wasn’t careful, I was going to be on a two-week solo camping trip when I get back,” he said.
Given restrictions on large-group gatherings, lawmakers were initially scheduled to cast their votes in shifts, 30 congressmen at a time.
Ultimately, the bill passed on a voice vote despite objections from U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who questioned whether a quorum was present. It was.
Minutes afterward, Crawford explained his “yes” vote on Twitter, calling the bill an “imperfect but necessary” response as the nation fights “to avoid near economic collapse.”
He portrayed his vote as a show of “support [for] those fighting every day in our hospitals, community health centers, first responders, and emergency personnel across the country. For our small businesses, their employees, and others who’ve already been hurt by this virus.”
Once voting ended, members of Congress streamed to the exits. With the usage of elevators discouraged, many opted for stairs.
Westerman didn’t doddle; he had a flight to catch and a long drive awaiting him.
Crawford, similarly, dashed back to the airport. With any luck, he’d make it back to Arkansas in time for a late dinner.
Reached by phone during a layover in Charlotte, N.C., Crawford said the legislation would provide Americans with the help they desperately need.
“It was a far from perfect bill. In fact, you might even have some folks that would argue that it wasn’t a good bill. But there’s really not much that we can do other than try to provide assistance where we can as quickly as we can,” he said. “Given the circumstances, doing nothing doesn’t seem to be a very palatable option.”
Before flying back to Arkansas, Hill finished some office work, made some videos and answered a few reporters’ queries, fielding questions from Politico and Roll Call.
On Facebook, Hill emphasized the importance of Friday’s vote.
“Federal relief is critical to defeat this virus and prevent our businesses from going under,” he wrote. “Together, we will overcome one of the greatest emergencies our nation has ever faced.”
Before flying back to Arkansas on Friday evening, Hill predicted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act would improve life for millions of Americans.
“This is an unprecedented emergency in our country. It’s a public health crisis that has global origins, but it’s created an economic crisis for our country,” he told the Democrat-Gazette. “This bill will go a long way to ameliorating the negative impacts of both the health and the economic impacts.”
While most of his colleagues were hurrying home, Womack was hosting a coronavirus teletown hall for his constituents.
He was joined by two guests: Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, ranking member of the House Small Business Committee.
All Americans need to take the coronavirus threat seriously, Frieden said, but he emphasized the heightened risks it poses to medically vulnerable populations.
Those with diabetes, heart conditions and other ailments should plan ahead, he said.
“Get yourself a three-month supply of medication if you can, because there may be a supply disruption. Avoid other people. Stay home. And have a plan for what happens if you get sick. This is a shelter-in-place-type situation. The fewer people we come within 6 feet of, the safer we are,” he said.
Before signing off, Womack cited the latest Arkansas coronavirus statistics.
He also ticked off a list of coronavirus-related recommendations, telling the audience: “Keep your hands clean, don’t touch your face, practice social distancing, do the things necessary so that we don’t participate in what is known as community spread and make the situation worse.”